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Representing Minorities

Minorities need far better representation in legislatures. A global report highlights the main issues.

Civil liberties

Representing Minorities

Minorities need far better representation in legislatures. A global

report highlights the main issues.


efore independence the issue of Muslims’ representation in the legislatures turned on the merits of separate vs joint electorates. Jinnah was initially opposed to it but espoused it in response to Muslims’ clamour. In 1927 he said openly from the platform of the Muslim League, “I am not wedded to separate electorates, although I must say that the overwhelming majority of the Musalmans firmly and honestly believe that it is the only method by which they can be sure”. On August 8, 1931 he said “If a majority is conceded in the Punjab and Bengal, I would personally prefer a settlement on the basis of joint electorates”. He hoped that “when they get their freedom we would rise to the occasion and probably separate electorates will go sooner than most of us think”.

The very first para of the Rajendra Prasad-Jinnah accord of 1934 read thus: “(1) The franchise qualifications of the three communities – Musalmans, Hindus and Sikhs

– shall be so modified as to reflect the population of each community in the voting register. (2) The electorates shall be joint”. Seats were to be reserved for Muslims in the centre, but “joint electorates shall replace separate electorates in all the provinces and in the centre”.

B R Ambedkar pointed out the flaws in separate electorates. The minority returns its “own men” to the legislature, but remains in a political ghetto. Worse, it cannot influence the vote in constituencies assigned to the majority community. It speaks for the political and intellectual bankruptcy of the Muslim League leaders that, even after independence, its leaders demanded separate electorates. They were treated to a withering reply by Vallabhbhai Patel in the Constituent Assembly on August 27, 1947.

But democratic representation of the people based on an electoral system which is not segregated implies secular politics with majority concern for minority rights and minorities shunning communal politics. Neither has happened in India. The Akalis get away with their communal parties to which, evidently, none objects. The BJP is its ally. Statistics published by academics show that Muslim representation in the Lok Sabha has varied and, more, never reflected the community’s significance in Indian politics. If one were to ask for delimitation of constituencies which would facilitate their representation, without tinkering with the electoral system, one would be accused of communalism. In other democracies such odium is not incurred.

The highly respected Minority Rights Group in London has produced a most instructive report entitled, Electoral Systems and the Protection and Participation of Minorities by Andrew Reynolds based on a survey of over 30 countries. Ably researched and well documented, it repays study.

Importance of Representation

The report focuses on the electoral system, the way votes are translated into seats, and its impact upon the representation of minority communities. It begins with discussions of the importance of minority representation for minority inclusion and protection, and whether it is better for minorities to self-identify or have their rights assigned on the basis of a legal predefinition of their status. It outlines the menu of electoral system options and their consequences, and the process of electoral system design and reform. Data is presented on the presence of minority representatives around the world and the prevalence of reserved seats for communal/ minority groups in national parliaments. Next follows a discussion of the impact of electoral systems, not just on the numbers of minority members elected but how the system can mould elite behaviours and levels of inclusion and accommodation. Finally it makes a number of recommendations about good practice when it comes to minority representation and electoral system design. India is included in the survey.

As the author sums up:

Two key points emerge from the study. First, that when designing an appropriate electoral system that addresses the needs of a minority, the case context determines all. The capacity of minority representatives to gain office and influence under various electoral systems is conditioned by a host of historical, demographic and communal factors. The recommendations found at the end of this report offer the beginnings of a design approach that takes into account such moulding factors. The second crucial point is that adequate minority representation goes beyond minority members being included in legislatures. Minority rights are also dependent upon how legitimate these members of parliament are as representatives of minority communities, and whether they have power and influence beyond their (often) small presence and numbers. His recommendations are pre-eminently


  • (1) Any new design or redesign of any electoral system should be based on the following principles: (i) ensuring the fair representation of each minority group,
  • (ii) ensuring that different groups will cooperate and that appeals to nationalism will not be unduly rewarded. (2) Designers of electoral systems must have a clear understanding of the situation of all minorities (ethnic/national, religious and linguistic) in the country before beginning the redesign. This should include the numbers of the minorities; their geographical spread, levels of literacy (with particular emphasis on minority women) and languages spoken.
  • The author holds that no electoral system should force electors and the elected into pre-determined identities – which is precisely what separate electorates do.

    All existing electoral systems should be reviewed for measures that have the effect of discriminating against particular minorities and their representatives (e g, high national thresholds) and these measures amended.

    This is not a job to be performed by Muslim bodies alone. A group of academics and public figures of impeccable secular credentials can undertake a study of the existing delimitation of Lok Sabha and assembly constituencies and recommend alterations which will enable better representation of Muslims in the legislatures than they have received.


    Economic and Political Weekly January 20, 2007

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